Fake Meat Is an Even Bigger Fraud Than I Thought

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The most realistic lab-grown fake meat is brewed in automated, stainless steel vats called bioreactors that look like they’re ready for that “Logan’s Run” remake I’ve been endlessly waiting for… except it isn’t. That, according to former and current employees, is just what fake meat startup Upside Foods wants you to think.

From there, things get seriously gross.

There are only two companies in the United States greenlighted by the FDA to sell “cultivated meat.” Instead of being extruded or whatever from scientifically enhanced vegetable matter like Beyond Meat, Fauxjerky, Cow Patty’s, or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Sausage, this stuff consists of “sheets of tissue” made from lab-grown animal cells. The sheets are then processed into something so close to actual chicken cutlets that one fine dining customer said, after his test meal, “the taste and the texture was incredible.”

That’s according to a story in Wired magazine, which claims that the gleaming chicken lab in Emeryville, Calif., “tells a misleading story of how Upside’s chicken is made.”

Five diners at the Michelin-starred Bar Crenn in San Francisco were treated to a special dish created with Upside Foods frankenchicken — and were apparently very pleased with the results. French-born-and-trained chef Dominique Crenn could whip up something with used Odor Eaters Ultra-Durable Insoles and make it tasty, so factor that into just how good Upside Foods’ lab-made chicken might really be.

But the question we need to ask is this: Upside Foods, some employees say, lies about how their faux chicken is created. Why?

Showing off the Emeryville plant to Wired last year, CEO Uma Valeti claimed, “This is the opposite of very closely guarded food innovations,” because “We’re starting to show, from day one, what this whole industry is about.”

But insiders say the vats are mostly for show:

The company’s flagship product—the juicy whole cuts of chicken served at Bar Crenn—are brewed, almost by hand, in tiny bottles. The huge bioreactors, those sources claim, simply aren’t capable of reliably brewing the sheets of tissue needed to form whole cuts of meat such as chicken fillets.

I couldn’t explain exactly why but I get slightly sick to my stomach whenever I read that the chicken parts are “brewed.”

My own personal biases aside, the process Upside Foods actually uses is “expensive and requires many hours of labor to produce even a small amount of meat” and takes place “in a laboratory that doesn’t feature in the factory tours Upside gives to journalists and members of the public.”

To my eye, it looks like we’ve traveled very quickly from fake chicken to real fraud.

Upside Foods was founded in 2015 (originally as “Memphis Meats”) to use science to make lab-grown meat that is made from animal tissue, more or less. The Wall Street Journal reported two years later that the company’s technology could “yield one pound of chicken meat for less than $9,000.”

And you thought Bidenflation was bad?

But there was progress. The $9,000-per-pound cost was “half of what it cost the company to produce its beef meatball about a year ago.”

According to a Food Dive report from earlier this year, Upside Foods had also developed “a cell line that grows in a culture medium without platelet-derived growth factors” which, in addition to sounding super-gross, costs “between $20,000 and $30,000 per gram.”

And that is supposed to do what, exactly, in a market where you can buy an eight-pack of boneless, skinless chicken breasts at Walmart for about 15 bucks?

Reuters reported in July that “to be price competitive, cultivated meat must reach a production cost of $2.92 per pound.” The story also noted that Chef Crenn’s frankenchicken creation will be “served monthly and by reservation,” but only “as part of a $150 tasting menu.”

What it actually costs to generate two small cutlets as part of a pricy tasting menu is left unsaid. Unless Upside’s costs have radically come down since 2017, it seems likely that Crenn is either getting those cutlets gratis or at an eleventy-million percent discount, so that the company can use her well-earned Michelin star to generate buzz. If Upside had managed to get their costs to merely “unreasonable” down from “comically astronomical,” you’d think they’d be bragging about it.

Cofounder Nicholas Genovese and process development vice president KC Carswell both left the company in 2021, for whatever that factoid is worth.

This brings us back to those shiny bioreactors that don’t seem to produce much in the way of edible biomatter. If the Wired report is correct, does that mean the company is struggling to scale up production to the point where the bioreactors are actually useful? Or, more sinisterly, are the steel vessels currently nothing more than a high-tech Potemkin village, there to reassure anxious investors that profits are just around the corner?

I don’t have any answers but I do know this much: tonight, no matter what my wife has planned, chicken is off the menu.

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